It’s a shame the lasting image most American soccer fans have of Brian McBride is one with his left cheek split open, blood gushing down his face after an errant Italian elbow left him flattened.
Yes, McBride has been a glutton for punishment through the years, famously undergoing seven facial surgeries to replace smashed cheek bones and generally repair the damage done by sticking his head in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yes, McBride epitomized the US National Team’s stubborn can-do mentality when he took that shot from Italy’s Daniele De Rossi in Germany in 2006, instantly embodying the team’s Rosie the Riveter role and helping the Americans gut out a 1-1 draw with the eventual World Cup champions.
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But to say that just one image encompasses McBride doesn’t do him justice. He has meant so much more in central Ohio and the suburbs of Chicago through the years, places that no doubt remembered him most fondly when McBride announced his retirement from Major League Soccer on Friday.
McBride will hang up his cleats at the end of this season, the 12th and final go-around of a domestic career sandwiched around a trail-blazing four-year stint with Fulham.
In Columbus, McBride is soccer royalty. He was the first man to don the hard hat for the Crew, the club’s first-ever draft pick (the league’s first-ever draft pick, for that matter) and still the best offensive player in the club's history.
A photo of McBride celebrating the Crew’s US Open Cup title in 2002 (still his only professional title of any kind) still hangs in the press box at Crew Stadium, and a Crew employee this week emailed MLSsoccer.com with the words: “There are Brian McBride things everywhere. Even a 6-foot tall Lego sculpture we have no idea what to do with.”
[inline_node:317550]Yes, Crew fans were disappointed when McBride returned to MLS in 2008, to Chicago of all places, an Eastern Conference foe that was already a contender for the MLS Cup. But that choice was made largely for family by McBride, who by 2008 was already a father of two and looking to return to the Chicago suburb where he happily welcomed a third daughter into the fold soon after.
Did Crew fans forgive him? Not entirely.
McBride was back at Crew Stadium in 2008 with the Fire, ignoring chants of “traitor” from the Nordecke and nodding a header past Will Hesmer in the early going of the Eastern Conference final to give the Fire a 1-0 lead. The Crew, of course, rallied for a 2-1 win en route to their first MLS Cup, a moment not lost on McBride after he spent so many years helping build the franchise from the ground up.
[inline_node:317536]Even then, McBride hinted at what was coming, praising the Crew’s accomplishment but adding this for his role in Chicago: “The core group is very young and talented, but for me, it’s pretty obvious that there’s limited time.”
That 2008 season was perhaps McBride’s best shot at an MLS crown, a title that has unfairly eluded a player of his league stature. The Fire came up short again in the 2009 Eastern Conference final, a loss in a penalty shootout to eventual champs Real Salt Lake that denied McBride the chance to play against longtime friend Landon Donovan and former US coach Bruce Arena for the league championship.
His time was expectedly brief in Chicago, but probably more tumultuous than he deserved. He never found the quintessential strike partner up top, he played under two coaches in three seasons and it’s still unclear if he ever made a real connection with former Fire hero Cuauhtémoc Blanco. This year, the Fire dropped in two new Designated Players to help fuel a title run, but it’s unclear if the team will gel in time for one last shot at winning McBride some hardware.
[inline_node:317537]American fans love to debate how their players stack up, somehow managing to pit Donovan’s consistency against Tab Ramos’ natural talent from a different time, or wondering if John Harkes’ European success means any more than Brad Freidel setting up camp in England for more than a decade.
There’s little argument McBride belongs in the conversation. He is, without a doubt, the best striker the US has ever produced, the country’s best player in the air and the most accomplished player in US history.
No other player has served as a regular captain with a club in the Premier League, something McBride did with aplomb at Fulham. Donovan and Clint Dempsey are the only other Americans to score in two World Cups, and ask both of those players about the one man who helped them get there, and you’re sure to get the same answer: McBride.
Was he perfect? Hardly. Despite being a self-diagnosed fitness freak, McBride was prone to injuries, including knocks and surgeries that shelved him for lengthy spells with Columbus, Fulham and Chicago. He has a mixed reputation with the media, a professionally rehearsed aloofness no doubt a product of fielding interviews since he led his suburban Chicago high school squad to a state title in the late 1980s when other kids were worried about a prom date.
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[inline_node:317539]His numbers have also expectedly dipped since he returned from England in 2008 to join the Fire. His offensive output has dropped from a team-high seven goals in 2009 to four this season, when coach Carlos de los Cobos has used the option that was previously unthinkable in American soccer circles: starting the team’s World Cup hero on the bench.
But, as McBride seems to be willing to admit, his time has finally passed. He has openly addressed questions about this day since 2009, sticking to the script most athletes write when they feel retirement looming.
He told reporters in 2009 and again in 2010 that he would leave when he couldn’t compete anymore, when he couldn’t play and train at a level he had perfected through the years that made 20-something rookies stare in awe during workouts. He would quit when he couldn’t keep up.
Where McBride goes from here is anyone’s guess. The path after soccer typically leads down the road to coaching or broadcasting, roles McBride could easily fill if he chooses. But he has become a gleefully proud family man in recent years more than anything, a father to three young girls he’s increasingly hesitant to uproot from the suburban neighborhood where he first met his wife and started down this road.
Wherever he goes, he’ll be remembered. Not only for the lumps taken in Columbus or Chicago or Germany, not only for the headers that defied gravity or common sense. Not only for the titles he didn’t win or the dogfights he did, not only for being a real MLS original who somehow outlasted just about everyone on the field.
Remember McBride for all these things. He was and still is the quintessential American soccer player, a bridge to the future and a fond reminder of where we started in the first place.